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The Huckster Vs. The Highwaymen

by James Rada, Jr.

By the time the sun cleared the horizon in the east on March 27, 1899, J.T. Waesche was already at work. Waesche, who was a huckster, had harnessed his team and set out to cross Catoctin Mountain to sell his goods in Washington County.

He traveled along the unpaved road that would eventually become MD 77 in the 1950s, moving slowly as his team pulled his wagon up Catoctin Mountain.

Waesche was about 2.5 miles west of Thurmont when he heard two voices call out, “Halt!” from either side of the road.

“Upon looking up, he found that two men, partially hidden by large rocks and with masks over their faces were covering him with their revolvers,” the Catoctin Clarion reported.

Although Waesche didn’t tug on the reins of the horses, they stopped at the sound of voices.

“Surrender. Throw up your hands,” one highwayman ordered.

Waesche should have expected something like this to happen at some point.

The newspapers had run stories about highwaymen robbing people along this road, but Waesche wasn’t armed. He remained calm. He stared at the men, trying to get a read on them and deciding what he should do.

“Well, I’m not going to do it,” he finally said.

He flicked the reins to start his horses moving. The highwaymen stepped from behind the rocks and moved toward the wagon.

“Stop or I’ll shoot you!” one bandit warned.

Waesche saw the man pointing his pistol in Waesche’s direction, but he also noticed that it was aimed over his head.

“One of them fired, and one of the horses, being a very nervous animal, ‘she went up into the air and came down running’ as Mr. Waesche put it,” according to the Clarion.

Waesche urged his horses to gallop, and the wagon hurried past the two highwaymen.

“They fired as many as a half-dozen shots, but they were either very poor marksmen or hoped to cause a run-away and smash-up, thus catching their man, as not one of their shots struck the wagon,” the Clarion reported.

Waesche drove to F. N. Wilhide’s house, which was the first house he came to a half mile up the road, where he could get help.

Besides the reported robberies along the road, the Clarion reported that three young men had been traveling along the road around midnight the night before. They saw a fire in the woods and walked over to see if it was a campfire or the beginnings of a forest fire.

“Upon approaching the light, the young men saw two men seated near a fire and they were engaged in making and fitting on masks,” the Clarion reported.

One of the men approached the three travelers. They exchanged pleasantries and the three men continued on their way. They thought nothing of the encounter until they heard about what happened to Waesche. They told the Deputy Sheriff Anderson of Thurmont that they could identify the men if they saw them again.

The Frederick Post reported that Anderson had an idea of who the two men were. He traveled to Hagerstown looking for them, but could not locate them.

The Frederick paper also reported a very different version of the story. The newspaper reported that Waesche was armed with two revolvers, and he drew them when the highwaymen challenged him.

“The would-be robbers, seeing they had run against the wrong man, took to their heels across the country,” the Frederick Post reported.

Either way, Waesche protected his property and put the highwaymen in their place.

A shot of MD 77, near Sandy Hole, when it was still just a dirt road in the early 20th century.

Eileen Dwyer

Located on the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania on South Mountain, Pen Mar Park became a prominent resort in the late 19th century. The owner of the Western Maryland Railroad felt the scenic location in the cooler Blue Ridge Mountains would entice Baltimore-area residents out of their city dwellings during hot summer months. And, utilizing his railroad, the city dwellers did just that.  Back in its heyday, Pen Mar Park boasted many first-class hotels, a dance pavilion, dining hall, playground, scenic overlook, roller coaster, Ferris wheel, carousel, penny arcade, shooting gallery, movie theater, beer garden and a miniature train.

The park was by far one of the most popular resorts in the eastern United States, with close to 20,000 visitors taking the 71-mile trip from Baltimore to Pen Mar each summer weekend. President Grover Cleveland, Dr. Walter Reed, and even actress Joan Crawford counted among the Pen Mar’s early visitors.

Unfortunately, by the end of the 1920s, the once-glorious Pen Mar Park began to lose its luster, as tourist numbers declined. Over the next few decades, the park fell into rapid decline.

In 1977, Washington County purchased the park, and it was re-opened in 1980. Currently, Pen Mar Park holds live music concerts during the summer in the multi-use pavilion (located at the site of the original dance pavilion). Visitors also enjoy the playground, rent the pavilions for gatherings, hike the Appalachian Trail, and take in the picturesque view from High Rock Summit.

It is like stepping back in time to visit the Pen Mar dance pavilion on Sundays between 2:00 and 5:00 p.m., where various musicians provide entertainment as part of the Jim and Fay Powers Music Series. Visitors of all ages dance or simply watch and soak it all in. Whether a seasoned professional of swing or ballroom dance or a complete uncoordinated amateur simply wiggling to the tune, this place and activity replicates the spirit of the Pen Mar Park of yesteryear. Twenty-five to fifty percent of those who attend are considered regulars, with dance groups from Pennyslvania, Viriginia, and Maryland.

On an afternoon at the dance pavilion at the end of June, where folks gathered to watch, listen, or dance to fifties music and easy listening provided by “Détente,” David Jacoby of Gettysburg was visiting. He took relatives on a tour of the area and included stopping at Pen Mar Park, Thurmont, Emmitsburg, and Gettysburg along the way. He said, “I just like this place. I’ll stop when I’m close by and have some fun.”

Doris Flax was raised in Emmitsburg, but currently lives in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She started visiting Pen Mar Park when she was just two years old and visits every chance she gets today. “My mother would bring us up here every Sunday, back then, to dance. Just like it is now.”

Shirley Rienks of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, especially remembers “Everybody’s Day” when she was a youngster. She said, “They had babies. I have a picture of that.” Everybody’s Day will be held on August 26 this season. It will feature the Ray Birely Orchestra. The Rocky Birely Combo is also one of the featured bands at Pen Mar Park. Rocky’s father, Ray Birely, was the original band leader at Pen Mar back in the day.

Joe Etter of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, has been dancing at Pen Mar “off and on for about twenty years.” A seasoned dancer, he’s known to be the local expert about everything Pen Mar Park. He recalled his favorites from childhood: the penny arcade and the carousel.

Vicky Anderson from Montgomery County, Maryland, grew up in the area. She returns when she can and makes a day of it by stopping for a meal in Thurmont, bringing a book to read, and then dancing, “It’s really nice. The view from High Rock is just breathtaking.”

The Pen Mar Park Music Series will continue through September 30 this season. Pavilion reservations and park information may be obtained by contacting the Washington County Buildings, Grounds & Parks Department at 240-313-2807.


Pictured are Doris Flax (left) and Shirley Rienks (right) at the Pen Mar Dance Pavilion.

Dancers enjoy swing and ballroom dancing at the Pen Mar Dance Pavilion on Sundays.

Nicholas DiGregory

Fort-RitchieMany residents of the historic Fort Ritchie and the surrounding town of Cascade, Maryland, are concerned regarding the manner in which Washington County government’s redevelopment plan for the retired military base was communicated to current residents. The redevelopment plan requires existing buildings at Fort Ritchie to be torn down to make room for a new mixed-use development called Cascade Town Centre. The development is intended to bring new residents and businesses to Cascade.

In mid-July, around ninety families that reside on the grounds of Fort Ritchie discovered that their leases would not be renewed and that they are being forced to relocate when their leases end over the next six months, some as early as September 2016.

The decision to terminate the leases of the residents of Fort Ritchie came on July 12, 2016, when the Washington County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to take the Fort Ritchie property from the current owner, PenMar Development Corporation, and transfer it to Washington County. Arrangements were approved by both parties, stating that ownership of the property would be completely transferred by September 15, 2016, and that redevelopment plans would be put into effect for Fort Ritchie by January 2017.

To many of the residents of the retired military base, the county’s decision to take charge of the property and its redevelopment came as a complete surprise. While the residents understood that redevelopment of their community was likely ever since the base was put up for sale by PenMar in 2015, not one of them anticipated being thrown out of their home so abruptly.

Jodi Gearhart, a single mother who lives in Fort Ritchie with her two thirteen-year-old children, said that she had no idea that the property was being transferred and that leases were being terminated until she read an article online by CJ Lovelace of Western Maryland’s Herald-Mail Media group.

“My initial notification of the issue was my neighbor,” Gearhart said. “He asked if I had read the Herald-Mail. I told him no, and he then told me that we have to be out by September. I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Gearhart said that it was not until July 14 that any written notification of the lease terminations was provided by PenMar or Washington County when some, not all, of the residents received letters.

Gearhart also said that the method by which the information was communicated seemed strange, “Normally, when PenMar has something, they take it and they put it in your door,” Gearhart said. “They come around on a little golf cart with the notifications, and they stick them in your storm door, like if they are having some kind of function or a traffic change. So I’m not sure why they felt like they had to physically mail them, and not just go around and post them, then we would have known the same day.”

Gearhart stated that hers and her fellow residents’ frustrations grew when Washington County officials refused to put anything concerning the redevelopment plan into writing until September.

“One of the biggest issues is that Washington County and PenMar right now are lacking in their transparency,” Gearhart said. “I live in Washington County, I work for Washington County, and I pay taxes to Washington County. This is my county. It’s different when the county tells you that you’re out, and that you have a few months to get out.”
Disturbed by the county’s lack of communication and concerned about the redevelopment plan, the residents of Fort Ritchie and the surrounding town of Cascade decided to take matters into their own hands by organizing a “Save Fort Ritchie” campaign.

Lev Ellian, a resident of Cascade, created the campaign when he built a Facebook page entitled “Save Fort Ritchie.” Gearhart and several other residents joined Ellian and created Twitter and Instagram accounts for the campaign as well. The Facebook page is currently being followed by more than 350 people.

Sterling Sanders, a nineteen-year-old resident of Cascade, helps run the daily social media operations, as well as organizes events for the “Save Fort Ritchie” campaign. Sanders helped to organize and lead a series of protests and prayer circles for the residents of Fort Ritchie to express their concern and to come together as a community.

“The prayer circle, instead of giving a message to the county, is giving a message to the community, letting them know that: we are sticking together, we are still here together, that we are going to fight this, we are going to stay together, and that we are going to put our faith in God,” Sanders said. “On the other hand, the protests send a message to the county that says ‘Hey, we aren’t going to give up on this, we’ve done this before, and we are going to do it again.’”

More than a hundred residents attended the protests held in July. While all present mainly protested the removal of the Fort Ritchie residents from their property, many of the protesters also voiced concerns ranging from distrust of the investors interested in purchasing Fort Ritchie to a fear of crime and pollution increase due to over-development.

In addition to the protests and prayer circles, the residents of Fort Ritchie and Cascade drafted a petition, asking Washington County officials to postpone the redevelopment plan until a public forum is held for residents to voice their opinions.

The petition, which was signed by nearly 200 individuals, was sent to the Washington County Board of County Commissioners, PenMar, Maryland District 2 Senator Andrew Serafini, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.

While no written response from Washington County or PenMar officials has been released, Washington County Administrator Greg Murray and PenMar Executive Doris Nipps both said that the redevelopment of Fort Ritchie must proceed in order to bring back jobs and revitalize the Cascade area.

Despite these statements, the residents of Fort Ritchie and Cascade continue to reach out to the residents of surrounding areas and to members of the Washington County government to work toward a compromise to ensure the continued well-being of the displaced families and the historic grounds of Fort Ritchie.

“We can’t all just do this on our own; we’d like all of the people of all surrounding areas to get involved with this issue,” said Sanders. “Even if we don’t win this fight, I think it would really help and really be a great thing for us all to become closer with all of the people in the surrounding areas as a community. So whether or not we win in the end, we will, I think, get closer as a community, and hopefully get closer with our government, to open lines of communication with them and come together.”